Monday, May 24, 2010

Me vs. US Air: a multiplicity of force relations

What does it mean to have power? I think of the power that a strong person has over a weak person. The power to compel someone to behave in the way that you want them to. I usually think of power as the ability to use physical force to get what you want.

In his, The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault goes to great lengths to argue that power is not something that you have, that you can use to subjugate people. He spends significant time articulating his definition of “power:”

“It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system.” You shouldn't look for one central source of power. “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything but because it comes from everywhere” (92-93).

It is hard to know what Foucault is talking about here. He makes three main points:

1.Power is a “multiplicity of force relations.” To understand what Foucault means by this, picture a piece of paper blowing in the wind. The paper is acted upon by many forces in many different directions at one time. How this applies to power will become clearer in a little bit.

2.These force relations support each other to form a system. Picture the feather at the beginning of Forrest Gump. It is blown back and forth in the wind, and comes to rest at Forrest Gump's feet. It is almost as if the multiplicity of forces were acting together to bring the feather to him. Foucault is pointing out that different forces can often act together such that there action seems systematic.

3.Power is everywhere. All you have to do is step outside and you are immediately feeling the wind's pressure upon you.

To explore Foucault's definition of power, I want to apply it to a recent experience I had. Notice the omnipresent, (seemingly) systematic multiplicity of force relations acting upon me.

Yesterday morning, while on a trip in Michigan, I received an automated call from USAir informing me that my flight home that evening had been canceled. I called the number provided and was told that an error had generated the call and that the flight was still on schedule.

The flight was scheduled to take off at 6:05, and boarded on time, but an hour later, we were still sitting on the runway. There was no communication from the captain or crew regarding the delay.

The flight was scheduled to land in Philadelphia at 7:50 (just enough time to catch my 8:30 connection to Boston), but at 8:10, we were still thousands of feet above the airport flying in circles. The anxiety level among the passengers rose as time passed and people began to wonder whether they would make their connections. The passengers around me presumed that we were simply waiting for clearance to land, but again, there was no communication from the captain or crew regarding the delay.

After the plane landed and taxied to the gate, a passenger asked a flight attendant if she could deplane first to make her connection. The flight attendant replied that she had no control over the order in which people deplaned.

I arrived at the connecting gate at 8:25 only to be told that I had missed my flight and should report to customer service to try to get on the next flight.

The customer service rep placed me on the 10:45 and when I pressed her for some explanation for why a delay in of one USAir flight had led me to miss my connecting USAir flight she angrily replied, “We can't control air traffic. You should be happy you're getting out tonight.”

Throughout the day, I was time and again denied access to information. Why was my flight cancelled? Why was it reinstated? Why were waiting on the runway? Why did we have to wait to land? Why did the plane leave when someone had to know that a group of people waiting for the connection were literally minutes away? Why does USAir allow you to book connections that someone must know will be difficult to make? Why do we all accept this state of affairs? If I wanted to talk to someone about this, who could I talk to? How long would I have to wait on hold?

I would fly only when USAir said I could. My flight could be cancelled at anytime for any reason. The pilot and crew have no responsibility to transmit information which they presumably have. The flight attendant is under no obligation to help passengers make their connections. The customer service rep is under no obligation to explain anything to me. The only means I found to strike back was to fill out a form on USAir's website. Pathetic.

The multiplicity of force relations acted on me to render me powerless, to increase USAir's power at my expense. Of course, there is no “USAir” at least no USAir that cares at all about me. It is not the case that USAir (or any other airline) is systematically conspiring to deprive its consumers of power and information. There is no central point. Each person I interacted with (or failed to interact with) was making a personal and independent decision. They only seemed to be acting systematically. Power is everywhere because it comes from everywhere.

Think of Foucault the next time you are wading through an automated phone menu, or trying to understand an overly complicated form, willing to give anything just to talk to someone with the power to help you.

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